The Research Award is presented once every three years by the University Fund Wageningen to acknowledge a researcher at Wageningen UR who has published an outstanding and original scientific article during these three years. The award is presented on the occasion of the foundation day (dies natalis) of Wageningen University.
The award comprises a certificate with jury decision, a replica of the Wageningen Tree and a monetary prize of € 2500, which can be spent as the researcher desires.
Research Award 2015
Daan Swarts MSc, a postdoc employee affiliated to the Laboratory for Microbiology at Wageningen University, was awarded the prize for his publication ‘DNA-guided DNA interference by a prokaryotic Argonaute’, which appeared last year in the leading scientific journal Nature. This article, of which he is the first author, describes the spectacular discovery of a microbial resistance system which can be seen as the evolutionary forerunner of the well-known RNA interference (RNAi) system in eukaryotes. His research opens up totally new routes to a targeted use of DNA in everything from bacteria and fungi to plant and human cells. He and his supervisor, Prof. John van der Oost, are named as inventors in two patents dealing with this discovery.
The jury was particularly impressed by Swarts’s unique discovery and the impact this could have on further genetic and biotechnological research. The jury believes the publication by Swarts et al is a breakthrough. According to the jury, the research can lead to new opportunities for curing hereditary diseases in humans.
- Prof. dr. Martin Kropff, Rector Magnificus
- Prof.dr.ir. Johan van Arendonk, Dean of Science
- Prof.dr.ir. Arthur Mol, directeur Wageningen Shool of Social Sciences
- Dr. ir. Stan Brouns, winner Research Award 2012
Members of the jury that had an involvement in the article where excluded from the evaluation of that article to ensure an independent evaluation.
Judicium Stan Brouns
The paper of Stan Brouns concerns nothing less than the discovery of a major immune system of bacteria; A major mechanism of these microbes to survive.
It is shown that microbes have a region in their genome that is composed of specific repetitive sequences and in between these repeats viral sequences did occur. This genetic information of the bacterium was used as small RNAs, containing these viral sequence and with a very specific length, did occur. This by itself was intriguing as it reminded of the RNA interference mechanism that had previously been discovered in eukaryotes. Important studies that had led to the Nobel Prize and an honoree doctorate at WU for David Baulcomb. So you might say the studies in bacteria are just an extension of what we already knew from eukaryotes. However this is not the case. Especially the work of Stan Brouns revealed the fantastic biological beauty of the prokaryotic immune system. He identified the enzyme that could cleave out the small RNA containing the viral sequence and most importantly he showed that it is used in a defense against the virus. In other words he discovered that microbes create an immune system by integrating small fragments of the viral genome in a specific place , called CRISPS, in their own genome. This region now serves as a memory of previous attacks, like our own immune system, but it can also be transferred to the daughter cells.
So a paper in which a beautiful biological system is discovered. A discovery with a high impact for applications (as is illustrated by the patent) This by itself is a sufficient justification for the award. However to judge a paper it is good to ask the question ; and what is next? Is this a paper that paves the way for new research ? This paper has been and is a corner stone for a major expansion at an international level of the CRISPS research.
It is also worth mentioning how this research started just 2 years before this publication in 2006. As a post doc in John van de Oost’s group, it is Stan who takes the decision to initiate a new research line on CRISPS Showing a very good sense for area’s that can lead to major novel discoveries. It is sense for intriguing novel biology, combined with excellent experimental skills that led to the seminal publication. A publication that during the last couple of years has been shown to be the fundament of a major new research line.
The jury for the Research Award, comprising Prof. T. Bisseling, Prof. E.H. Bulte, Prof. Kemp, Dr B.G.J. Knols, Dr J.J.M. Vervoort and chaired by the Rector Magnificus, Prof. M.J. Kropff, has unanimously decided to present the Research Award of the Wageningen University Foundation to:
Dr J.J.B. Keurentjes for his article “The genetics of plant metabolism”, published in Nature Genetics (38, 842-849, 2006), of which he is lead author.
In addition, the jury has decided to give an honourable mention to Dr R. Rozendal for his article “Principle and perspectives of hydrogen production through biocatalyzed electrolysis”, published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy (31, 1632-1640, 2006).
Award winner Keurentjes
What is the importance of plant metabolites?
With his article, Keurentjes has played an important role in providing more understanding of the mechanisms that operate inside plants. Plants are a primary source of food for people, animals and many other organisms on earth. Besides the nutrients that provide us with energy, plants also produce a wide range of other substances, known as secondary metabolites. These are often complex molecules about which little is understood. Why do plants make them and what is their function? However, we do know something about some of these plant substances. For example, they can have a positive or negative effect when consumed, such as the flavonoids in fruit and vegetables. These not only provide variations in colour (yellow, red and purple pigments), but some flavonoids also act as antioxidants and may reduce damage to cells, slowing ageing and possibly preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease. Another example is taxol, a toxic substance in yew trees, which is also an important medicine if used properly. It has been used with great success in chemotherapy against various types of tumours. There are a great number of other secondary metabolites with important pharmaceutical or health-promoting effects that are used as the basis of traditional Chinese medicine.
Complex secondary metabolites such as taxol cannot be synthesised chemically, or only with great difficulty; the production of these substances depends almost entirely on plants. Plants are therefore outstanding factories for producing these types of valuable, but complex, molecules.
National and international importance of water purification
René Rozendal has worked on the technology for a third generation of water purification installations. Partly due to the efforts of the Sub-department of Environmental Technology of Wageningen UR, in recent decades new forms wastewater purification have been introduced. Water purification is extremely important in the Netherlands and around the world. The first generation of wastewater treatment systems produced clean water, but also a great deal of active sludge as a by-product. The second generation of wastewater treatment systems, which became known primarily due to the work of Gatze Lettinga and associates, operated on the principle of anaerobic water purification, where clean water with much less active sludge was produced than was the case with the first generation. Rozendal's study has given an impulse to the third generation of wastewater treatment installations. This third generation not only produces clean water, but almost no active sludge, and perhaps most important, this type of installation can also contribute to the development of a hydrogen economy. Preliminary studies have shown that up to 20% of the need for energy in the Netherlands can be supplied with this new technology. An important advantage of this technology is that there is no competition with food production, which is often the case with other types of biofuels (biodiesel, bioethanol). The third generation of wastewater purification technology has excellent potential to develop into an important source of sustainable hydrogen, without environmentally harmful side effects. zich te ontwikkelen tot een duurzame waterstof bron, zonder milieu belastende bijwerkingen.
Rozendal's research is embedded in TTIW Wetsus, the centre for sustainable water technology. This is a research institute in which Wageningen UR, the University of Twente and recently Delft University of Technology have joined forces with many industrial partners to develop new technologies for sustainable water.